The only way truly to appreciate the PBS children’s program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is to watch it with a three-year-old, which I did regularly when my kids were small. As an adult, you must first get past Mr. Rogers’ nerdiness: his fey manner, the trademark cardigan sweater (knitted by his mother), the white shirt and tie, and, of course, the sneakers, which are definitely not the cool brand. There was no snappy patter from him. His delivery was almost painfully slow, as if he were addressing a small child – which is precisely what he was doing. He was speaking directly to the three-year sitting in your lap. But once you got on his wave-length, something wonderful happened. You found yourself in the presence of the uncle or grandfather you always wished you had: unfailingly patient, kind, loving and wise. Mr. Rogers used simple songs and skits to help pre-schoolers cope with their difficult feelings and fears. He showed them how the world worke. Above all, he gave them assurance they were loved. He ended every show by repeating something his grandfather had told him when he was a child himself: “You know, you made this day a really special day just by being yourself. There’s only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are.”
Mr. Rogers came in for a bit of criticism from social conservatives who blamed him for a growing sense of entitlement among young adults. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News picked up on comments by Louisiana State University finance professor Don Chance, who complained about students who hit him up for higher grades than they deserved because they all believed they were special. In his view, Mr. Rogers epitomized a “culture of excessive doting.” Parents needed to get the message across to their kids that the world owed them nothing: “If you want to be special, you’ll have to prove it.”
There are echoes in such complaints of a controversy that is at least as old as the doctrine of original sin. Mr. Rogers’ refrain, “I like you just the way you are,” bears a superficial resemblance to the words of the Christian hymn, “Just as I Am”, which often accompanied the altar call at Billy Graham crusades. Both are grounded in love and affirmation, but their starting point is entirely different. For dyed-in-the-wool Christians, the gospel message contained in the hymn is that God loves you in spite of who you are. For Mr. Rogers – who was himself an ordained Presbyterian minister – the message was that you were loved because of who you were. With him there was no sense that the taint of original sin would cause you to misbehave if you were allowed to just be yourself. According to the doctrine of original sin, as articulated by St. Augustine and others, human nature is inherently corrupted by sin, notwithstanding the fact that we are made in God’s image. This is not some design flaw but a congenital condition inherited from the original sinners, Adam and Eve.
It’s hard to argue with the proposition that the world would be a better place if we were all raised in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. But as anyone can attest who has observed small children at play, even Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood would be a pretty rough place without adult supervision. Does this mean human nature is inherently sinful? Certainly those who think this way are apt to be less disappointed than those who hold the opposite view, based on the evidence at hand. But neither in itself tells the full story: that Jekyll and Hyde are really the same person under the skin.